Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan

“This at last wipes the taste of the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal out of one’s mouth, where Mohammedan art is concerned. I came to Persia to get rid of that taste.”

The very first monument that Byron describes after arriving in Persia, is the Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan. The visit is recorded in his journal on the 2nd of October 1933, after his arrival in Tehran.

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The Gundab-i ‘Avaliyyan, before the restauration (archnet)

The monument is located in Hamdan: it is not the only monument of the city, but, in Byron’s words, he ‘eschewed the tombs of Esther and Avicenna, but visited the Gunbad-i-’Alaviyyan, a Seljuk mausoleum of the twelfth century’.
In Hamadan, in fact, far more monuments are to be found: the city has a long history, dating back to the pre-Islamic period. Hamadan had always played a major role in the region: given its location, controlling a major route of communication, and resources, many consider that the ancient Hamdan (Ectabana) was occupied before the 1st millennium B.C. Its actual origin remains much of a mystery and a matter of speculation. The city was chosen as the capital of the Median empire around the 8th century B.C. according to Herodotus, and later became the summer capital of the Achaemenids. The remains of this past are part of the rich heritage of the city, of course.

The Gunbad-i ‘Alaviyyan is anyhow the most significant monument of the Islamic period of the city.

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Drawing of the ground floor plan, by E. Herzfeld (archnet).

The building is defined, by Matheson, as the mausoleum of the ‘Alaviyyan family, who virtually ruled the city for two centuries. Others believe that it was originally the khanqa of the same family, in which some of them were eventually buried.

The monument is quite massive: it is square, with a stellar projection on each corner. As for the material, as many monuments in the area, it is done almost exclusively of baked brick. It can be compared by other Seljuk monuments, for instance, the Gunbad-i Surkh in Maragha, dated 1147-1148. Then, even if the date is not certain and cannot be found in its inscriptions, it is commonly dated around 1150, in the Seljuk period.

Byron’s description does not focus on the architectural features of the mausoleum: it is far more concerned with the lavish decoration of the monument, ‘whose uncoloured stucco panels, puffed and punctured into a riot of vegetable exuberance’.

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Exterior detail of the entrance portal. Photo by Marie-Thérèse Ullens de Schooten (archnet)

Pope, in his Survey, mentions the lavishly decorated surface of the Gunbad, inferring in its stucco decorations an invocation for abundance and fertility, and concluding that it provides ‘the most complete example of stucco encrustation that survives in Persia’.
The decoration is so impressive to Byron, that he compares the monument to Versailles: the floral patterns are ‘as formal and rich as Versailles – perhaps richer, considering their economy of means’. This is something the reader will find often throughout the journal: particularly when referring to architectural beauty, Byron tends to compare what he saw in Central Asia to what he had visited in Europe.

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Gunbad-i ‘Avaliyyan, exterior view of the entrance. Photo by Marie-Thérèse Ullens de Schooten (archnet).

Besides the stucco encrustations, from the photos, it is visible a large inscription in Kufic script running on the upper part of a lateral wall of the cube. Unfortunately, the information on the monument are quite scattered and focus primarily on the vegetal motifs, thus, I could not find so far a complete transcription of the inscribed text. The only photo I found including the inscription, also, is too partial to provide a good source for proposing a transcription, or a translation. It is quite sure the inscription is not a foundation one: in the sources, it is clearly stated that no inscription provides any date or any patronage. Then, it is possible this is a Qur’anic inscription, or a pious one: most usually, this kind of inscriptions are not taken into much consideration, sorrowfully enough.

From the photo, the inscription seems to be a prominent decorative feature of the monument: the big, Kufic characters are realized in baked bricks. The big Kufic letters display little embellishment: no foliation, no particular decorative feature.

Byron concludes his visit commenting that this monument finally ‘wipes the taste of the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal out of one’s mouth, where Mohammedan art is concerned’: right from the first Persian monument he visits, the author makes clear what he consider the quintessence of Islamic art, and for sure his journey will not disappoint him.

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